Anthropologist Wade Davis speaks at Long Now Foundation, January 13

Anthropologist Wade Davis is National Geographic's "Explorer-in-Residence," and deservedly so. His books about indigenous cultures are more exciting and stranger than any Indiana Jones adventure. I became a fan after reading his book about voudon and zombie culture in Haiti, called The Serpent and the Rainbow (skip the awful movie with the same name -- it bears almost no resemblance to Davis' book).

Davis has a new book, called The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World, and he's going to give a talk about it at the Long Now Foundation On January 13. It will be hosted by Stewart Brand.

(Above, Wade Davis at TED, talking about "the Elder Brothers, a group of Sierra Nevada indians whose spiritual practice holds the world in balance.")

Wade Davis at Long Now


  1. Also – Wade’s Massey lectures will be or, more likely already are, available as CBC Ideas podcasts on iTunes.

  2. I am a huge fan of Wade Davis’ work, but I think the concern about disappearing cultures is ill founded and the desire to compare it to dwindling biodiversity borderline offensive.

    I served in the Peace Corps in Senegal, which has more than a dozen local languages split predominantly along tribal lines. The tribes themselves have many sub-groups with their own traditions and dialects. For example, I lived in a predominantly Wolof village (and speak Saloum-Saloum dialect Wolof, a southern “peanut belt” dialect). In the northern coastal region there is an ethnically Wolof group referred to as the Lebu who are known for their woodworking and have a dialect I and other Saloum-Saloum dialect speakers can’t understand at all.

    The problem with the proliferation of languages is that it interferes with communication. Villagers in Senegal often choose to learn French, Arabic, or increasingly English as a way to expand their ability to communicate. This choice is made by the villagers and certainly deserves our respect. Senegal has been concerned about the “Wolof-ization” of their country for a long time and even without “outsider languages” (a notion that is patently absurd) a tiny dialect such as Lebu will almost certainly die simply because it is impractical.

    Frankly, I’m a bit sick of the need for folks with pet issues to turn everything into a crisis.

    We cannot possibly choose to isolate a people in order to preserve their culture and the desire of those living in remote areas to be an active part of the world in which they live is something to be encouraged.

    Yes, our world is reaching out to touch and change the lives of villagers but the same technology and social forces may allow villagers to reach out and touch our lives too.

    That isn’t so bad is it?

    Worry or anger won’t help to culturally enrich our world. A few new museums may pop up, which is nice for those of us interested and for folks like Mr. Davis who will be employed by these institutions, but I think a simple solution to the problem would be for private individuals to make the decision to be active in seeking out and learning a little-known language. Most of us will choose French or Spanish as a second language, but why not Xosa? Pulaar?

    Apart from helping preserve and expand a language we will learn interesting information about our own language and culture and nobody has to get worked up about anything or cry that the sky is falling.

    For those interested: Banana is originally a Wolof word

    1. That’s not quite how I interpret what Davis is saying, though I am by no means encyclopedic about what he’s written. And I agree that pristine isoloation is the wrong, wrong, wrong way to go about preserving a threatend culture, I just don’t think that’s what Davis is saying. From what I’ve read, he doesn’t seem interested in creating museums of culture or putting anything on a storage shelf for gawking. He’s more interested in active engagement, especially when it comes to perceiving the very real suffering can be both resolved *and* exacerbated by first world ways of handling problems. I think he’s simply asking people to examine a little more carefully what is possible in cultural exchange. Yes, let’s bring in modern dental care/clean water/computers to the jungle but also recognizing that these disappearing cultures have something we can learn from as well – a way of seeing the world that is important and valid, and as of this moment in time extremely fragile.

      Phil Borges (whose work parallels Davis’s in lots of ways) is all about connecting kids in different cultures through computers and storytelling. It’s brilliant, and the very opposite of isolationist.

  3. Yes the movie was a highly fictionalized version of the book, but it wasn’t that bad, and it did convey the basic message of the need to investigate other cultures. I would never have read the book if it wasn’t for that movie. In fact it strikes me as somewhat ironic that someone interested in this subject would dismiss the “low brow” Hollywood version of the story– I bet the ‘Elder Brothers’ would much rather sit through the movie than plough through the book themselves.

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